In 2021, be thankful for your issues list

Anna-Katrina Shedletsky

For people like us – people who build physical products – our jobs look different today than we ever could have imagined two years ago. Before the pandemic, much of our “real work” took place on fluorescent-lit assembly lines buried deep within huge concrete block buildings half a world away. The stories of catastrophes and heroism that made up a hardware engineer’s mythology have faded into legend. Previously told in hushed voices and with grim laughter in darkened factory vans speeding down highways or over late-night hotel dinners – now appear quaint. Oh, so you mean back in the days when you could just be in the factory tomorrow? You solved a problem with sharpies? Now try doing that from 6,000 miles away.

The machismo of the mythology fueled us during those late nights trying to find the next clue that would provide the breakthrough. The methods may have changed, but the nuts and bolts remain the same: a long issues list is better than no issues list. The engineers who trained me entered each early build with a distinct goal in mind: as a team, we will make a list of 100 issues with the product. It was called the MIL, the Main Issues List. Every day I was at a build, I would stand on the assembly line for hours with a small notebook in hand to write down whatever I could find:

  • Operator having difficulty removing pull tab from right to left
  • Most buttons feel mushy on 0.5mm shim config
  • Cosmetic gap is larger on the left than on the right

In 2021, where stepping on the factory line to see things yourself is the stuff of legend, creating the issues list in the first place is a victory. Each issue is hard-won from combing through the data exhaust from the factory or hours spent FaceTiming factory counterparts at 1 AM. In 2021, the fact that there is an issue list in the first place is something to be grateful for. When we dedicate ourselves to looking for flaws, we find them. We have to find them to make fixing them possible.

For the teams that are toiling away this week worried about an ongoing build happening in a faraway place and getting pulled into calls to unblock your teammates – remember that finding issues with part quality, process, design, and workmanship is progress. Once found, you can solve them. A long issues list is encouraging, particularly if it’s longer than your list from last year. It means that your team and the process you’ve created to counteract the unique challenges your manufacturing process has faced in the previous two years is catching what is bad. It means that the product you are building is meaningful enough that it couldn’t be done on the first try — no matter how experienced your team is. And most importantly, it means you have a list of precisely what is standing between you and getting your product to your customers.

Thank you from everyone at Instrumental for building something meaningful enough to be hard. Thank you for striving to build better – in whichever ways you’ve made those steps forward in these past two years. Help spread our gratitude for engineers doing hard things by sending this to an engineer who needs some encouragement this holiday.

Best wishes in building better, 

Anna and the Instrumental Team

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Anna-Katrina Shedletsky

CEO , Instrumental | Forbes Senior Contributor

Anna grew up as a mechanical engineer in Apple’s supply chain, leading product design for a handful of iPods and Watch. She started Instrumental to build technology to enable engineers like herself build better products.

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